Obituary: Joe Bowman, photographer, 72

Joe Bowman, a professional photographer based in Philadelphia, died on Dec. 12 from complications of heart disease. He was 72 and lived in South Philadelphia.

Friends said Bowman, a photographer, was “a beloved figure” in the local LGBT community. He contributed iconic photos for AIDS organizations dating back to the 1980s. Events such as Blue Ball and White Heat benefited from his photography, which Bowman provided on a pro-bono basis.

“Joe was so philanthropic,” said Heshie Zinman, a friend and former executive director of AIDS Information Network. “He had an amazing eye for shape and form and beauty. He created photographic campaigns for Blue Ball and White Heat that were sexy and sensual. He created the branding for those events. And people naturally wanted to attend — in addition to wanting to support the organization.”

Bill Whiting, Bowman’s friend, praised the photographer’s traits.

“Joe Bowman was a very talented photographer,” Whiting said. “As a person, like all of us, he was neither all good nor all bad — but rather a superbly-human blending of both. He challenged us all to embrace life to the fullest.”

Jeff Shablin, another friend, said Bowman’s legacy will live on.

“Joe’s contributions to the art world will always be timeless,” Shablin noted. “I was lucky enough that he shared so many colorful, vivid, hilarious stories that will forever make me smile. Joe always touched a special place in my heart. He may be physically gone but he will live on forever.”

Peter Dunn, a longtime friend who also served as a business manager for Bowman in the 1980s, mourned his passing.

“Especially in his later years, Joe epitomized resilience despite the ups and downs of life,” Dunn said. “His sense of humor carried him through, and Joe knew how to fling a haughty rejoinder when needed. He loved spirited conversations, photographic projects and travel. His friends remember him as someone who greatly appreciated intelligence, wit and hearty laughs shared over drinks, dinners and at his legendary parties. Joe’s many friends will sorely miss their vibrant, fun-loving and sincere friend.” 

Dunn recalled a well-attended party Bowman threw at Tre Scalini on Passyunk Avenue to celebrate his 70th birthday.

“He accumulated such a great variety of friends over the years. He wanted them all at the party. Joe dearly valued his friendships and it was wonderful to see so many people who loved him gathered all together.” 

Bowman was born on Sept. 11, 1945, in Pottstown and lived most of his life in Philadelphia.

Friends said Bowman’s “big break” in the photography industry occurred in the 1970s, when he had an opportunity to cover fashion collections in Paris. He subsequently worked for department stores, including Wanamaker’s, Nan Duskin and After Six Formals. He also worked for numerous advertising agencies in Philadelphia and New York, along with magazines such as Philadelphia, Brides, Modern Bride, Town and Country and GQ.

In the early 2000s, Bowman’s professional focus shifted to smaller art projects both online and in local galleries. 

Bowman is survived by a sister, Phyllis Omar; a half-brother, Joe Irving; a nephew, Sam, and Sam’s wife Stacy; and their children Sammy and Gavin. 

Friends are planning a memorial service to be held in the spring. Additional information will be available next month.

Donations in Bowman’s memory may be made to the William Way LGBT Community Center or MANNA.

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Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, and the Keystone Press.